Words by Sophie Tweedale
Want a helicopter pick-up for your sixth birthday party? Or how about a 24-hour camp-out in the woods with full SAS training? Consider it done. We have come a long way from pass the parcel, party poppers and a CD in the front room, and trailblazing party planners Sharky & George have much to do with the revolution.
Synonymous with the most jaw-dropping kiddie parties of our generation, they are arguably the entertainers du jour of the children’s party scene.
From speedboat chases down the Thames to virtual mini-festivals, founders Sharky (Charlie Astor) and George (Whitefield) oversee an empire that has mushroomed out to kids’ clubs in the Caribbean and Zakynthos, with a fan base of A-listers from Paul McCartney to past prime ministers.
London parents have been speed-dialing these party-caped crusaders since 2007, but the provinces are now getting a bite of the cake too, with Sharky & George West, which opened in Bristol four years ago.
So what is fuelling this seismic shift in our attitudes? Head of party HQ West, Archie Sample, 33, believes that Gen Z (and the new Gen Alpha) children themselves are driving the change.
“Children are much more savvy these days,” he explains. “It’s a generation growing up with media and computers all around, and they have higher expectations of what defines fun.
“Gone are the days of sitting still until you’re knocked out of a game, or being performed to by a clown with a red nose. Families also lead much more active lifestyles than they did 20 years ago, and that’s reflected in what parents want for their children’s parties. Kids have boundless energy – what we’ve done is come along and harness that.”
With a team of 15 at the Bristol branch (Sharky & George has 175 in total), you’ll find teachers, students and even accountants amongst its party people, all of whom Archie admits have a certain childlike ‘Peter Pan’ aspect to their personalities – after all, it must be tough working in an office with a giant treehouse and ball pit.
“We are totally bespoke, so as long as it isn’t too ludicrous, we can generally get anything, anywhere, and we get asked for all kinds. Recently, we did an overnight survival party for a 10th birthday. After being driven to a secret location in Land Rovers James Bond-style with his friends, the birthday boy was whisked off by helicopter.
“We love taking parties to a new level – the only limit is their imagination and what they can come up with.”
And the requests they deal with on a daily basis boggle the mind. We’re talking speedboats, 36-hour ‘mega parties’, a Quidditch pitch, talking parrots and, yes, even a tiger (although that one got cancelled in the end apparently).
It’s clear that increasingly the bar is being raised by parents, and that budgets can slip into the £1,000s – it’s a Pandora’s party box that can’t be closed and a trend that looks set to continue.
But Archie is keen to point out that their ‘bread and butter’ is still the classic £288, two-hour church hall party with 30 kids, where entertainers turn up on bicycles with a rucksack full of games.
“Our ethos is about going back to basics,” he explains. “We are the naughty older brother or sister who turn up to a party, and kids love that. No one is ever knocked out, it’s all-inclusive, old-school fun, but redesigned with new twists.
“The emphasis is on playing games rather than watching a performance. There’s nothing better than 30 children piling onto one mat at the end of Musical Yoga Mats and having the time of their lives. It’s organised mayhem.”
Since Bristol opened it has gained a large following – the team now hosts up to 40 parties a month, covering as far south as Cornwall and up to Oxfordshire and beyond.
According to Archie, favourites are the woodland camp-out parties (where you get to free a hostage with laser guns, of course), and their mini-disco parties, inspired by Britain’s Got Talent. Plans are afoot to expand further afield in the UK – and abroad. Alongside regular bookings to host parties for holidaying Brits in the South of France and Switzerland, events are planned for New York and the Hamptons this summer – with a view to setting up a permanent US HQ if they go down well.
The team, it seems, also ‘puts back’, entertaining children on wards at Great Ormond Street Hospital, doing a party at an orphanage in Kenya and holding adoption parties for foster children needing homes at the Bristol branch. This is an element of the job Archie describes as “incredibly fortunate and rewarding”.
In just 10 years, what started out as two buddies organising a few parties for friends has quietly turned into a lifestyle revolution – mostly through word of mouth – reinventing fun and putting Britain firmly on the map as a global party force.
Not bad for a pair of Eton school buddies, who first realised their talents after agreeing to entertain their housemaster’s six-year-old daughter and guests at her birthday party in order to avoid a detention. By the time they graduated from Bristol University, they were organising several parties a month together.
But the message from Sharky & George’s latest HQ is that there is still much to be done. “We are a pretty tireless bunch and are working on new ideas all the time,” says Archie. “We’ve recently redesigned our teddy bear discos for toddlers and, for the older ones, we’re adding spy and quest parties to Bristol this year.
“Giving children the chance to run around and be silly is so important – that feeling of freedom is what we try to create.”
George Whitefield, Director of Sharky & George, has his eye firmly on the next big thing. Britain’s party evangelists are ready to take Generation Alpha to the next exciting stage – and it’s fully immersive.
“There is a lot of talk at the moment about screen time and children getting stuck in their own little worlds,” he explains. “We have so many parents admitting that’s all their child is into, so we thought let’s channel this change into a positive, real-life experience.”
The result, piloted in a big Minecraft event earlier this year, was a party complete with virtual-reality headsets and life-sized models of digital characters and landscapes that children could interact with.
“It’s proving very popular – kids solve puzzles on these life-size grids, then go running around the garden or venue to find rubies, coal or hidden items,” says George.
“The future is fully immersive and we have big plans to move things to the next level – from virtual reality to developing complex quests with real-life characters and a narrative to interact with.”
Now in its 10th year, the Sharky & George bandwagon seems to be rolling full steam ahead. Even George himself sounds awestruck as he describes how they’ve gone from eight parties a month to the current 450.
“In the summer, we have to turn down 15 parties a week because of the demand,” he says. “But we never rush our training process. Our people have to be good – that’s crucial.“
I never planned for this to be a job – it all just got a bit out of control and here we are! And I do pinch myself all the time when I think about what we’ve created, but we have a great team.
“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and how we’ve shaken things up a bit, but we’re definitely not sitting back on our laurels.”
Whatever the formula is, it seems to be working. The only flaw? A whole generation of parents secretly wondering if hiring Sharky & George every weekend would be socially acceptable.
Sharky & George’s ultimate party tips
Print onto a CD of your child’s favourite tunes or upload a video invitation onto a USB stick.
SPACE IS GREAT
Up-end sofas and take tables out of the room. Being able to run around adds to the party. Change the venue if you don’t want handprints on walls.
Have four hours of games planned – you’ll be amazed how quickly you race through them.
UP THE ENERGY
Don’t expect children to sit still; focus on non-elimination games, such as treasure hunts, tug-of-wars, competitions and artistic creations.
Don’t hand out too many – they are your currency for two hours, so don’t devalue them. Throw every ounce of energy into it and have fun.